The Wedding Shroud by Elisabeth Storrs was one of the main reasons I was so anxious to get my hands on an i-pad. The "real" book was not available in the US, and the e-book was not available for Nook, but I could order it on kindle. To push me father along the road of must-have-kindle, Cecelia Holland published an Amazon short (only 99 cents!) that sounded fascinating, and there was only one way to get it. So, I hinted strongly that I wanted an ipad for Christmas.
Blood on the Tracks is a 79 page work of nonfiction that details the events of The Great Upheaval of 1877. It is a time of massive transformation in America. Industrialization with increasing mechanization has led to high unemployment, increasing poverty, and a stark inequality in the distribution of wealth. The small minority of wealthy individuals, particularly the owners and high ranking managers of the railroads, are in bed with politicians at every level.
In 1877, in an effort to increase profits even more, the railroads decide on a 10%- across the board pay cut for their employees. At the same time, they indicate they will begin running more double-engined train. Trains with two engines can pull far more cars but require only one set of operators. This substantially increases the work and creates dangerous working conditions for the remaining crew, but brings in a lot more money. Of course, the workers would still see their paychecks cut.
Railroad workers are not the only disgruntled laborers. Increased production with higher unemployment means that there are fewer people able to buy the goods that are made. This has led to more lay-offs/firings and a generalized downward spiraling of the economy—a hole that no one knows how to dig themselves out of.
This set the stage for a massive strike that began in Martinsburg, West Virginia and quickly spread throughout the U.S.. Mobs swarmed train depots. Local governments called in first the regional milita and then the Federal Troops at the request of the railroad magnates. The strikers had the support of the populace. While the violence was contained in some cities, in others there was horrifying bloodshed on both sides.
Cecelia Holland is a meticulous historian and a gifted storyteller. Her historical novels consistently rank among my favorites and that same skill is applied here. Holland delivers a compact and clear account of a complex, geographically far-flung event with far-reaching consequences. When I saw this short narrative, I knew I had to read it, even though labor history is not really my thing. The parallels with today are so blatant that one would imagine we should be able to learn something from it. Unfortunately, I suspect that in many cases, the wrong conclusions would be drawn.
I should, hopefully, get back on track with review writing. I’ve been reading. But two of the books were for the Historical Novels Review (the quarterly publication of the Historical Novel Society.) I may post at least one of them here after the print review comes out. I’ve also been writing, trying to finish up a draft of my work-in-progress. The first draft is now complete! So here comes the fun part. The rewrites.